Every time I drive off the island, I sigh and drink in the spacious view. The dramatic, complex marsh system rolls out in front of me. We have this unbroken view of the marsh thanks to some far-sighted individuals. In 2020, the Marsh Protection Act turned 50.
A few years back, I had the privilege to work on a marsh study with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the part of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is huge. It includes the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean and up to the freshwater swamp forest of the Savannah River. It also spills down the coast, including several of our barrier islands.
The study examined how the marsh changes from salt marsh at the ocean to the freshwater in the forest swamps. There were five marsh categories: salt marsh, brackish marsh, semi-fresh marsh, fresh marsh, and forest swamp. I never really understood how delicate this complex system is until I worked on this project.
I was part of the bird study group. We worked in the spring and in the fall to identify migrating birds using the marsh. The bird study was only a small part of this enormous project, including all kinds of plants and animals using the area. I learned that the marsh was even more fascinating when you viewed it up close. Each of the five sites was laid out in a grid. They were out in the middle of the marsh, not along the road.
The salt marsh site was the simplest site. The plants were limited to thcould tolerate saltwater. The main type of grass is spartina. I learned the taller the grass in a salt marsh, the closer you were to creeks. Because the tide changes twice a day, the mud around the tall grass is called “pudding.” This pudding is like quicksand. You are going to sink.
As you moved away from the ocean, freshwater mixed with the saltwater, which called the type of plants and animals to increase. People like the view of the marsh, so they build on its edges. They filled in areas to ensure the home didn’t flood.
Then, in the 1960s, a proposal to mine phosphates on a couple of small islands in the marsh was proposed. The alarm was sounded. Studies were showing the value of the intact marsh.
So an idea to create a law to protect the marsh was forged.
One of the connections to the Golden Isles and this law is Reid Harris, the state representative from St. Simons Island. He sponsored the Coastal Marshland Protection Act in the Georgia legislature.
In 1970, this act became law. The delicate balance of saltwater to freshwater is insured for the wide variety of plants and animals that depend on it.
Plus, that beautiful view of the complex marsh system I sigh over is protected for generations to come.